WASHINGTON — This year alone, the House has apologized for slavery and Jim Crow laws, and the Senate has taken steps to make amends for the nation’s mistreatment of American Indians and Native Alaskans.
Victims of past injustices and their descendants say that while congressional apologies carry meaning, they also are frustrating when they don’t lead to actions to make up for past wrongs.
In 1993, Congress approved an apology to Native Hawaiians for the federal government’s role in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The apology, signed into law by President Clinton, called for Congress to support reconciliation between the nation and the Native Hawaiians.
But Congress has not taken what many Native Hawaiian supporters see as the next step toward reconciliation — approving legislation to create a process for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as one of the nation’s indigenous peoples. And that effort could again be put on hold for another year.
“There is some frustration that it has been so many years and we’re still waiting for this reconciliation that was articulated in the 1993 measure,” said Clyde Namu’o, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
But U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai’i, chief sponsor of the Native Hawaiian self-government legislation, said the apology is an important milestone in the healing process.
“In ratifying the resolution, the United States went on record, committing itself to a policy of reconciliation with Hawai’i’s indigenous people,” Akaka said. “Enactment of my federal recognition bill is the next necessary step in this journey.”
Akaka first introduced Native Hawaiian self-government legislation in 2000 only to see it stalled every year since by Senate Republicans, who say it would create a race-based government. The House approved the bill in 2000 and again last year.
This year, Akaka received a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. But that is looking less likely as Republicans continue to slow down the chamber’s floor action with a record number of filibusters.
“We are continuing to work with Senator Akaka about trying to bring it to the floor as quickly as possible,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. “However, in a closely divided Senate where Republicans are filibustering every bill in sight, there is a long list of things that we’re going to need to try and deal with before the end of the year.”
setting new directions
Native Hawaiians aren’t alone in looking for other government actions as a sign of an apology’s sincerity.
Chad Dion Lassiter, who teaches an American race relations course at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, said the House apology in July for slavery and Jim Crow laws that codified segregation in many states from the 1870s to the 1960s was symbolic.
“But I think the hard work comes beyond the apology,” Lassiter said. “There has to be a true cleansing and a true atonement. There has to be a discussion entered where we are really looking at how we can uproot American racism.”
Apologies have meaning if they set a new tone or direction or if they help move toward shared goals, said Neal Milner, ombudsman for the University of Hawai’i.
“Apologies make a difference, but to say they make some difference doesn’t mean they make a difference in a blanket sort of way,” Milner said. “For example, the fact that we’ve apologized for Jim Crow laws doesn’t mean that all of a sudden there are not going to be race issues in this country.”
Two decades ago, Congress apologized to Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. The apology, signed by President Reagan, carried with it payments of $20,000 for each surviving internee.
S. Floyd Mori, national executive director for the Japanese American Citizens League, said the apology meant a lot to the 110,000 people sent to the camps.
“They were singled out as part of the enemy and it was a very shameful thing for them,” Mori said. “The apology helped them deal with it and realize that it wasn’t their fault that it happened.”
Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said the Senate’s apology to American Indians and Native Alaskans is a symbolic first step in the federal government’s holding itself accountable for its “horrendous actions and a systematic government effort to obliterate Native Americans.”
“I think that basically Congress is making a political statement that these atrocities happened in the past, and we’re moving forward in a way that recognizes our current relationship with them,” Pata said. “Given the treaty rights that have been negotiated, we are hoping that Congress keeps that mindset and honors those treaties exactly.”
The United States is not alone in trying to make amends for wrongs done to its native people.
Canada and Australia also apologized this year for mistreating their indigenous populations and New Zealand gave back almost half a million acres of land the country had taken from the native Maori.
Japan also finally recognized the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, as an indigenous people.
Milner said acknowledging the past is an important way of changing the future.
“Sometimes you are recognizing the obvious,” he said, “but the fact that you recognize the obvious in a public way can make a difference.”
Reach Dennis Camire at firstname.lastname@example.org.